His entry in the Rolling Stone Record Guide said it more or less like this: He was so tall, and young, and beautiful, and he’s so damned dead, that he’d be a cult figure even if he wasn’t a genius, which he was.
Nick Drake has one of the saddest stories in modern popular music. He was like a man out of place and time, a child of relative privilege raised in the former English colonial possession of Burma, a student at Cambridge, and, as it happened, a songwriter of almost supernatural abilities. He began recording around 1969, released only three albums, the last in 1972, and was dead of an apparent suicide by 1974. In all he recorded about two hours of music, and in his brief lifetime sold virtually no records, was appreciated by virtually no one, and grew to believe himself an abject failure.
This may seem incomprehensible to modern listeners, who are almost invariably beguiled by the formal perfection of his compositions, with their flowing melodies, nuanced lyrics, and arrangements that weren’t of a piece with contemporary pop music, but with something much older, chamber music, perhaps, or maybe music that came down to us from a distant, long-forgotten past. His best songs are precise and perfect, like faceted diamonds, yet still somehow mystical and indefinable. It’s hard to believe that upon their release, they sank almost without a trace.
Something nobody could have anticipated happened in the early 1990s. An advertisement for a VW convertible appeared, which in its full version ran for about a minute to the accompaniment of one of Drake’s signature songs, Pink Moon. The commercial, now quite famous, is magical – it depicts a group of friends riding together down a lonely highway on a moonlit night, looking up at the stars, everything suffused in deep blues and blacks, until finally they arrive at a sort of frat party. They take one look at the goings-on, back out of the driveway, and keep on driving, the brilliant stars of the constellation Orion hovering overhead. The VW itself is shown only intermittently, with much of the spot filmed from the interior, as if the car’s a cocoon within which the tight-knit little group can appreciate the starry night, and each other.
Just about everybody who saw that ad, me included, immediately thought “what is that song? Who’s it by?” Pink Moon is Drake at his purest, a timeless acoustic piece that might serve as a sort of litmus test, actually – any listener unmoved by it probably has no ear for music.
The result was a minor sensation, and Drake’s records began to sell in respectable numbers, and continue to do so. He’s pretty much universally revered these days for his craft, sensitivity, and expert guitar playing, and all sorts of modern writers cite him as an influence and inspiration. If only he’d known this day would come.
If you haven’t heard him yet, Northern Sky, another of his deeply affecting ballads, should close the deal for you – it’s as close as this very sad young man ever got to a happy love song, infused with hope and a sense of wonder. It’s romantic poetry, really; in a few spare and elegant lines, the narrator portrays himself as having once been directionless and blind to life’s possibilities, but not any more, not now that she’s here. It’s such a beautiful evocation of the ideal that, as one reviewer wrote, “it makes you ashamed of the ugliness of the real world”.
I never felt magic crazy as this
I never saw moons, knew the meaning of the sea
I never held emotion in the palm of my hand
Or felt sweet breezes in the top of a tree
But now you’re here
Bright in my northern sky.
This is an allusion to Polaris, the North Star, which served for millennia as the literal guiding light to mariners navigating across trackless oceans, providing not just direction, but the invaluable peace of mind that comes from knowing that so long as it’s up there, clear and bright, you’ll never be lost.
And that, ladies and gentlemen, is how you do that.
Here’s the Volkswagen ad: